Did you ever have a moment when you realized that nothing in life could be absolutely certain? Such realizations were like rude awakenings, a pail of cold water thrown abruptly into one’s face. Fear can very quickly transition us out of a place of peace and wholeness, catapulting us into someplace we rarely think we will find ourselves. Such awakenings came to me in 1962, 1963, 1970 and 2001; awakenings that caused a major paradigm shift in my thinking about America and being an American.
PARADIGM SHIFT #1 – In October 1962 we learned that Soviet nuclear ballistic missiles were installed in silos on the island of communist Cuba. History reported that the plan was to provide defense to Cuba after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, an assault launched by the U.S. In April 1961. However the weapons installed were offensive, not defensive. From Oct 14 through the 28th the latest chess board moves from each side were reported as they evolved.
President Kennedy invoked the historical Monroe Doctrine. U.S. ships blocked ocean traffic coming to deliver missiles to Cuba. We held our collective breath, teetering on the brink of what we called the threat of mutually assured destruction.
I was all of 16 years old at the time. School assignments and friends kept my mind off this terrible threat most of the time, but then there was this one day. We just finished gym class and our PE teacher led us in a bomb survival drill. We lined the gym walls sitting on the floor. Following her instructions we drew our knees up to our chests, tilted our heads down and clasped our hands over the back of the neck. Seriously??? This would help us survive? I thought, “Might as well just put my head between my legs, reach up and kiss my sweet ass goodbye!!” I envisioned us being reduced to statues of ash, like the people of Pompeii after Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D. One touch or light breeze and our ashes would collapse in a heap. I walked the parapets of my mind and looked out at a distant misty land of unfulfilled dreams, dreams of possible fame and fortune, love, marriage, children, grandchildren. These life events I always assumed would surely come to pass now seemed like smoky wisps I could only grasp at. An epiphany slowly dawned, this is for real. I could die in my bed tonight! If a bomb struck I would be instantly killed, never knowing what hit me. A deluge of confusing thoughts flooded my brain, “Surely this will be resolved, but what if it isn’t? Is a missile launch plan in place now? We are all going to die! Oh no….no God no!” I cried softly, but can’t remember if my classmates did likewise. I asked, “How does this happen in America, to Americans.? It just can’t be. After all, we’re Americans! Nothing bad like this happens to Americans! Weren’t we the ‘good guys’, that liberated and rebuilt Europe. Weren’t we the resurrected Roman Empire?, strong and fierce, unconquerable. But then the Romans did get their butts kicked by those wild Pict tribes of Scotland who demolished the Roman 9th Legion.”
I just couldn’t wrap my brain around this potential apocalypse. Ultimately the standoff was resolved and the U.S. and U.S.S.R finally retreated from the precipice they almost jumped into, dragging all the world with them. My fears also slowly retreated and life seemed normal and sane once again. The cozy paradigm I loved living with shifted back. Good America and good Americans would live on and I was ecstatic!
PARADIGM SHIFT #2 – The Day Kennedy Died
People say everyone remembers where they were when the news hit. It’s true. On November 22, 1963 I was at my job at M.W.Kellogg Company in Manhattan. Someone got the news
and yelled it out into the open office space. Desk drawers flew open and transistor radios popped out. First reports said he was seriously injured, giving a glimmer of hope that
perhaps he could survive. Productivity plummeted as we glued our ears to those little radios. We prayed, we cried, we begged God to let our beloved President live to see another day.
At 1 p.m. word came that he was declared dead. The office closed early; no one could work. Riding the subway home, everyone was silently devouring extra edition newspapers with headlines screaming the tragic news.
On November 25th we all watched JFK’s funeral in Washington. The citizenry was physically and mentally numb, still reeling. A huge hole was blown through the soul of every American. The nation dragged itself to a mourner’s table as we consumed large amounts of grief and pain.
I will never forget sitting next to my dad on the living room sofa as we all watched the proceedings on our television. At one point he gave up the deepest, saddest sigh/groan I ever heard. The days of Camelot were over, like a balloon destroyed by a quick pin prick. Poof!
It was over, our innocence as a nation lost, never to return again.
PARADIGM SHIFT #3 – “Houston, we’ve had a problem”.
Fast forward to April1970. I was 24 and soon to be married. Astronauts James Lovell, John Swigert and Fred Haise of the Apollo 13 team, blasted their way into space heading for a lunar landing. Since we launched our first satellite (Explorer 1 – Jan 31 1958), we had gotten rather used to reports of NASA launching other satellites, then men going into space, etc. I must admit it became kind of ho hum after awhile as astronauts went into space and safely returned with frequent regularity, like a commuter riding the Long Island Railroad. The thrill was gone. When we learned about the Apollo 13 onboard explosion I thought, “Oh, they’ll get it all fixed up, right? They’re Americans after all, from the land of get up and go. Good ol’ Yankee ingenuity. They’ll be fine”.
The mission to the moon was scrapped and replaced by a plan to orbit the moon and use its gravitational pull as a slingshot to shoot them back towards earth. They accomplished this but were far from out of the woods. Following the daily news reports, it went from bad to worse. With only 15 minutes of power left in the Command Module, the crew made their way into the Lunar Module. They were low on food and water and to conserve energy there was little heat. Sleep deprived from the cold they also had to contend with rising levels of carbon dioxide. This seriously affected their brain functions critical to making various mathematical calculations to resolve a host of problems. Oxygen was leaking to the outside, dropping to dangerously low levels in the module. My heart pounded a little harder as I read the litany of woes. The horrible thought dawned on me that they could die up there. I saw them in my mind, like frozen insects encased in cocoons of frost and ice, cruising endlessly in the dark, cold void of outer space. I heard the eerie music and lyrics of the Rolling Stones playing in my head, “It’s so very lonely, you’re 2,000 light years from home”. (give a listen…. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wcy8o0gj-A0
Prayers to God went up every day as I implored Him to bring them all back safely. This never happened before. “American astronauts don’t die in space” I thought, reciting it like some holy mantra. Once again through the help of ground control and the astronauts keeping their wits about them, disaster was averted. The limping module and crew landed safely on the earth. What a nail biter that was. Like the earlier paradigm shift, once all was fine I gleefully returned to and embraced my pet beliefs.
In retrospect I can’t help but observe and ask just where did this invincible America thinking come from. After each near fiasco was resolved I was happy, but learned nothing about our vulnerability. It was an arrogance hidden deep within me, its presence kept under wraps until these near tragic events unveiled it. Looking back now I am shocked and dismayed at how I could think this way, especially now that mass media has made the world a smaller place and we are much more aware of the suffering of countless millions. Why should WE be exempt from the pain and suffering the rest of the world experienced and is still experiencing? Who the hell did I think we were and still are? I love America and her people but it was important for me to realize that although much good was brought into the world by her, she also has many stains, rips and tears on her lily white dress. We have as much innocent blood on our hands as the worst invaders in recorded history.
PARADIGM SHIFT #4 – September 11, 2001
9/11 changed everything. It epitomized a permanent national and personal paradigm shift. My paradigm about America not only shifted again, but is now anchored in a much clearer, more accurate reality albeit one I do not relish.